Sexism in professional performance reviews

In a report for Fortune.com, linguist Kieran Snyder set out to quantify the ways in which men and women were treated differently on their performance reviews. She surveyed 28 companies and collected nearly 250 performance reviews on both male and female employees, by both male and female performance managers.

Her findings are astonishing.

Women are critiqued more harshly than men

Of 94 female performance reviews, 71 of their reviews included negative feedback, while 23 included only constructive feedback. Conversely, of 83 male performance reviews, only 2 included negative feedback, while 81 included only constructive feedback.

As for criticism, 94 female performance reviews included criticism while 13 did not. 83 male performance reviews included criticism, while 58 did not.

This means that 58.9% of men’s performance reviews included critical feedback, while 87.9% of females’ did. The reviewers were both male and female; the data did not include information on whether one sex assessed the other more harshly.

Women’s reviews are more personal and less constructive

According to Snyder’s findings, a typical male review would be something like this. “There were a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful if you went deeper into the details to help move an area forward.”

A typical female review was far more likely to contain a personal dig. “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

There it is. That word. Abrasive.

Have you ever heard a man called abrasive? This word alone appeared on 17 separate occasions to describe 13 different women, according to Snyder. Can you guess how many times it appeared on a male review? That’s right. Zero.

If that by itself isn’t irritating enough. Snyder found that similar character critiques appeared in 71 of the 94 female performance reviews that she examined.

Sexist assessments in the workplace

Abrasive is not the only word that we think of when considering the disparity between the sexes. You know the others… Bossy. Scattered. Temperamental.

The Harvard Business Review surveyed of over 81,000 performance reviews to come up with this handy infographic:

It’s time for employees, employers, and the public at large to realize the negative effect that these attitudes have on society. Women hold far fewer positions of top management than men. Everyone knows that. But women are also more likely to enter the workforce at a lower position, regardless of qualifications, experience,  or whether or not they have children.

With more and more women graduating with top degrees every year (in some places outpacing men), is their lack of professional opportunity due to a lack of intelligence? Is it due to the mysterious ineptitude outlined on their performance reviews? Or could it be due to insidious and culturally entrenched sexism, starting with the managers tasked with reviewing females in the workplace?

What can be done to rectify this?

Here’s what I’d like to know: Why do female performance reviews contain so many more personal critiques and character assessment than those of men? I refuse to believe that it’s because women are somehow inferior employees.

Experience shows us that if we want something to be different, we have to change it from the inside. For that, it is imperative that we encourage more women to apply for and assume positions of leadership.

Beyond that, if you are in a situation where these casually sexist character observations are being thrown around, call it for what it is. And if you are in a position where you are reviewing the performance of others, then try this: when you’ve written someone’s assessment, imagine that they are the opposite sex and see if the critique still holds water.

I don’t know about you, but I would be hard pressed to find a male’s performance review that describes him as vain, panicky, or a ‘gossip’.

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